SAN ANTONIO -- Bruce Bowen learned Monday that he finished second in voting for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.
He might've come even closer to winning if Dirk Nowitzki had a vote.
Bowen has carved his niche in the NBA as San Antonio's perimeter shutdown specialist, doing the dirty work on the outside while Tim Duncan protects the paint. He's often been at his best against Nowitzki, Dallas' 7-foot jump shooter, with the latest example coming Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Not only did Bowen hit the 3-pointer that sent San Antonio to an 87-85 victory, but he also held Nowitzki to 20 points -- matching his lowest total in 31 games -- and clearly rattled the Mavericks' superstar.
In his postgame interview, Nowitzki epitomized a defeatist attitude, saying things like he's not expecting any open shots the rest of the series.
And that was only hours after his confidence should've been boosted by his second straight third-place finish in the MVP voting.
Given a night to sleep on it, Nowitzki wasn't any more optimistic Monday.
He talked about needing more help from his teammates in Game 2 on Tuesday night, noting, "I'm not going to beat the San Antonio Spurs by myself" -- even though that's pretty much what he did in the first round against Memphis and is what's expected of players of his caliber at this time of year.
"I don't think I'm going to score 30, 35 points a game this series the way they play me, by sending a double-team as soon as I catch the ball," Nowitzki said. "I've got to be efficient for the team, maybe score less and rebound better or make my teammates better. I'm just focusing on that."
Bowen has been voted to the NBA's All-Defensive first team the last two years. His runner-up status for the top defender award makes a third straight honor pretty likely.
"He tries to make me uncomfortable out there. He's been doing that for a couple years, so it's nothing I haven't seen."
Dirk Nowitzki, on Bruce Bowen
Despite giving up five inches, Bowen's trick against the big German is swarming him as soon as the ball arrives, pumping his arms and moving his feet. He does everything but make funny faces to get Nowitzki out of his rhythm.
"He tries to make me uncomfortable out there. He's been doing that for a couple years, so it's nothing I haven't seen," Nowitzki said Monday after a practice that included tips from his longtime personal coach, Holger Geschwindner.
Here's a fact that cannot be dismissed as coincidence: The winning team in all four Dallas-San Antonio games during the regular season also had the winner of the Bowen-Nowitzki matchup.
Nowitzki scored 30 and 34 points in Dallas' two victories, making 23 of 44 shots.
He scored 14 and 23 in the losses, with Bowen pestering him into missing 19 of 28 shots.
In Game 1, Nowitzki missed 12 of 20, including his only 3-point try. He didn't go to the rim much, either, as evidenced by his six free throw attempts. The fact Nowitzki, a 90-percent foul shooter, missed two of them is another indication of how much Bowen left him out of whack.
"He's one of the best defenders in the league, there's no doubt about it," San Antonio's Manu Ginobili said. "He gives problems to everybody. There are some times where somebody is going to go off and score 30, 35, because there are great players in this league. But if there is somebody that can limit the stars, it is Bruce."
Dallas had five days off before Game 1, while San Antonio had only 36 hours and spent a chunk of it on a flight from Sacramento. Having squandered that perceived advantage, the Mavericks will need to find another edge for Game 2 or face a long, three-day wait for Game 3.
The bright side for the Mavs is that even with Nowitzki's rocky outing, the game still came down to one last shot. Had they done a better job against Duncan, who matched his second-most points of the season with 31, or made a few more free throws, they could be the ones up 1-0.
"I think there would be more psychological wreckage if we'd lost by 22," coach Avery Johnson said. "We feel we can still get something done."
Johnson complained Sunday about San Antonio getting away with playing "bear-hug defense." His friends on the Spurs had fun with that Monday.
While Bowen dismissed it as "just a deal of emotions and wanting to get a victory," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson put it in the playbook during his years with the club.
"Because he had trouble guarding people 1-on-1, he used to just grab them," Popovich said. "So I learned that from him."